Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

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The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Viking, 2013
Hardcover: $27.95

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.

Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.

The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.

The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.

In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:

“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).

Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.

Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.

Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.

However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.

Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.

Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.

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